Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pakistan Closes NATO Supply Route to Fight Militants


by: Agence France-Presse

Pakistan security personnel oversee supply trucks. (Photo: Reuters)

Peshawar, Pakistan - Pakistan on Tuesday cut off supplies to NATO and US forces in Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass as security forces launched a major operation against militants there, officials said.

The offensive comes after a series of spectacular raids by suspected Taliban militants on foreign military supply depots in northwest Pakistan earlier this month in which hundreds of NATO and US-led coalition vehicles were destroyed.

Pakistani security forces backed by tanks, helicopter gunships and artillery units poured into the lawless Khyber tribal region on the Afghan border before dawn, the area's administrator Tariq Hayat told reporters in Peshawar.

"We have launched an operation against militants and armed groups in Jamrud," the gateway to the Khyber Pass, Hayat said.

The main highway linking Peshawar to the border town of Torkham has been shut down until the operation is complete, he said, adding: "Supplies to NATO forces have temporarily been suspended."

Heavy cannon fire was heard in Jamrud, residents told AFP. Helicopter gunships shelled suspected militant hideouts, killing five people and wounding 10 including an off-duty soldier, local security officials said.

The home of local Taliban commander Iftikhar Khan was destroyed, one official told AFP on condition of anonymity. Several other suspected hideouts were razed, he added.

"This is a giant operation. It will continue until we achieve our objective," Hayat said, adding that the operation could be expanded beyond the area near Jamrud - located between Peshawar and Torkham - if necessary.

The tribal administrator said the operation was aimed at putting a stop to both attacks on NATO supply vehicles and a spate of kidnappings for ransom in the tribal badlands, where Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants are active.

Troops had already seized a large quantity of arms and ammunition in a raid on a warehouse in Jamrud, Hayat said, adding that a complete curfew had been imposed on the area, with paramilitary troops patrolling the streets.

Residents said they were advised not to leave their homes and that roads in the area had been barricaded to prevent civilian car traffic.

No arrests had yet been reported, but Hayat said: "We will start rounding up people if necessary."

The bulk of the supplies and equipment required by NATO and US-led forces battling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is shipped to Pakistan's largest port, Karachi, in the south.

From there, the containers of food, fuel, vehicles and munitions are taken by truck to depots outside Peshawar before being transported to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass.

But the fabled road passes through the heart of Pakistan's lawless tribal zone, where extremists sought refuge after Afghanistan's hardline Taliban regime was ousted in a US-led invasion at the end of 2001.

A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, contacted in Kabul, said the Pakistani army offensive had thus far had "no impact" on foreign forces.

"We know about the operation but our information through our logistics experts is that there is no impact on our supplies," British Royal Navy Captain Mark Windsor told AFP.

"The road will be closed for three to four days due to this Pakistani military operation and the intention of that operation is to ensure security to that route," he said.

"We always have stocks. Just because we stop bringing things in on one route does not mean we don't have supplies from other routes."

Some supplies are also transported into Afghanistan by plane or via southwest Pakistan and across the border at Spin Boldak.

Three NATO supply vehicles were gutted prior to the start of Tuesday's operation when militants blew up an oil tanker outside Peshawar with a remote-controlled bomb, security officials said.

Two weeks ago, several haulage companies in Pakistan working for foreign forces refused to ply the 50-kilometre (30-mile) route between Peshawar and Torkham, saying their drivers' lives were at risk.

Senior Pakistani officials said last week that some troops had been redeployed from the tribal areas to the country's eastern border with India, amid simmering tensions with New Delhi over the Mumbai attacks.

The move sparked concerns that the fight against extremists in the rugged border region could suffer.

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